In the writings of Howard Zinn, we find a formula for a better patriotism.
Last month, state representative Kim Hendren introduced Arkansas House Bill 1834 into the Arkansas state legislature. Its goal was to ban all of the late professor Howard Zinn’s articles and books from being used in public and open-enrollment public charter schools in Arkansas.
For years now, Zinn has perpetually been the subject of various conservative schemes of censorship. Previous attempts to censor Zinn have all had similar justifications — they argue that his works present some sort of liberally distorted or un-American critique of our nation’s past by telling American history from the point of view of Native Americans, slaves, immigrants, African Americans, women, religious minorities, workers and the poor and marginalized. This view conflates critiques of national myths and government propaganda, as well as any presentation of our country’s failures, with being “anti-American.”
Zinn, a World War II veteran, historian and professor of political science at Boston University, passed away in 2010 at the age of 87. By incorporating Zinn’s work to complicate the standard spiel of laws, political parties and “manifest destiny” typically used in state-approved curriculums, my Advanced Placement U.S. History course in high school made me a better citizen and thinker. A self-described democratic socialist and the author of works such as “A People’s History of the United States,” “A People’s History of American Empire,” “Marx in Soho” and “La Otra Historia De Los Estados Unidos,” Zinn has consistently challenged those in power and their state-mandated visions of history by writing for the most voiceless among us.
America has a history of silencing dissent, however respectful. Noam Chomsky, a close friend of Zinn and a professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has faced similar labels of anti-Americanism for his writing on and critiques of American imperialism, neoliberalism and capitalism. Zinn had an open file at the Federal Bureau of Investigation for supporting socialist and pro-labor organizations considered “communist fronts” at the height of the Cold War and McCarthyism. For his involvement with Martin Luther King, Jr. and campaign against the Vietnam War, he was later added to the FBI’s Security Index as a high security risk. He could therefore be summarily arrested if a state of emergency were declared. If I am not already on a similar list for being a bearded brown man with a strange name, I suspect my writing and political views might have now caught the digital probes of President Donald Trump’s administration’s National Security Agency or the FBI.
Supporting your government and everything it does or has ever done is not patriotic — it’s blind. Americans, no matter how marginalized, have the freedom of speech protected by the U.S. Constitution; we cannot sit down, shut up, be grateful and only listen to the narratives told to us by those in power. The rights we have are meant to be used — American citizenship requires having an opinion and expressing it through protest, writing, organization, public engagement and activism.
The most patriotic and “American” thing someone can do is tell the truth and criticize those in power, whether by writing political satire like Jon Stewart or Egypt’s Bassem Youssef or by telling stories of an unsavory past to highlight our failures, our progress and the ways in which we still need to improve. If a government is so insecure that it cannot handle dissent, criticism, ridicule and a realistic examination of the past, then it is no true government. What has made America exceptional, despite the uncountable number of injustices it has perpetrated against an uncountable number of people, is its continual movement to correct those mistakes by investigating the past under the protection of freedom of speech, thought and opinion.
Inquisitiveness, skepticism and dissent define American exceptionalism. Arkansas’ children deserve to know both the beauties and the horrors of our nation’s past. They deserve the chance to think critically about how they influence the present vis-à-vis our national myth. Washington, D.C. does not define the United States; we the people do.
Conflating criticism of the United States government and its past with “hating” America or Americans is a constant theme throughout American political history. Yet when you ban or censor someone’s writings, you are not proving them wrong — you are only showing that you fear what they have to say. Engaging with them, debating them and refuting them is the only possible way to truly discredit their arguments. That is the whole point of historical scholarship — not to present some mythological story of great men and governments who benevolently “gave” us all freedom and opportunity from the top down but to engage in a sophisticated and dialectical process of research from the bottom up. You can love your country and think its people are exceptional while acknowledging the myriad ways in which its national myth has been untrue and its government oppressive. Indeed, Zinn said it best in a 2002 interview when he argued that “dissent is the highest form of patriotism.”
Thankfully, Hendren’s bill to ban Zinn’s works in Arkansas public schools failed to pass the education committee. Yet the fact that banning Zinn’s works is even on the legislative radar in Arkansas — a state among the highest in poverty and teen birth rates and among the lowest in higher education attainment in the country — speaks volumes to the priorities of those in power.